Single vs Multi-Joint Exercises (Which One Is Best for You?)

Connor Sellers
Published by Connor Sellers | Senior Coach
Last updated: March 11, 2024
FACT CHECKED by Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
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As a personal trainer, I'm often asked whether it’s best to focus on single or multi-joint exercises for the ultimate workout.

Multi-joint exercises like squats and deadlifts ignite multiple muscles, boosting strength and functionality. Meanwhile, single-joint movements like biceps curls and leg extensions allow you to sculpt and precisely refine specific muscles.

Both single and multi-joint exercises have considerable benefits, but how do they compare, and which one is more efficient to help you reach your fitness goals?

My team and I spent weeks researching to determine which one of these exercises is best for you.

Quick Summary

  • Multi-joint exercises are effective for overall strength and functionality, while single-joint exercises allow for focused muscle sculpting and refinement.
  • To optimize workout efficiency and muscle development, incorporate both single and multi-joint exercises, with single-joint exercises targeting specific muscles and multi-joint exercises engaging multiple muscle groups.
  • According to the National Institute of Health, multi-joint exercises effectively mimic daily activities and sports-specific movements, enhancing athletic performance.
  • In my view, a balanced combination of single and multi-joint exercises provides the most comprehensive approach to fitness, catering to both general strength and specific muscle development.

What’s the Difference Between Single and Multi-Joint Exercises?

A gym coach helping a person workout

As a trainer, I've come to realise that the difference between single and multi-joint exercises is the amount of muscle involved in the movement.

1. Muscle Activation

Also called isolation exercises, single-joint movements allow you to focus on one specific muscle.

Single-joint exercises include leg extension, leg curl, calf raise, biceps curl, triceps extension, pec deck, and crunches. 

Multi-joint exercises, on the other hand, work several muscles together. These muscles are given distinct names based on their functions.

  • Prime Mover or agonist - This is the primary muscle built to provide a large amount to perform the movement.
  • Synergist - Also referred to as neutralizers, synergists are helper muscles that work together to assist agonists in creating the desired movement.
  • Stabilizer - Also known as fixator muscles, stabilizers prevent the agonist’s unnecessary movement.
  • Antagonist - It’s on the opposite side of the same joint as the agonist. Examples of antagonistic muscles are hip extensors (glutes and hamstrings).

“The main muscle that's moving is called the primer, or agonist. For example, if you pick up a coffee mug from the table, the agonist muscle is your bicep. The opposing muscle is the tricep, which is referred to as the antagonist.”

- Paige Waehner, Fitness Editor at Verywellfit

2. Volume

A person lifting weights in the gym

Multi-joint exercises allow for the simultaneous training of multiple muscles, thereby maximizing your workout efficiency.

Therefore, you can implement fewer exercises to fully train your body.

For example, squats provide a training stimulus for the glutes, hamstrings, calves, quadriceps, and abdominals.

On the other hand, adding single joint exercises target one primary muscle group at a time, which means that many exercises need to be performed to accumulate the same volume.

3. Coordination

Single-joint workouts typically need a little coordination, as they focus on the movement of one joint at a time, making them ideal for beginners.

They are frequently simpler to master compared to multi-joint exercises.

Are Multi-Joint Exercises Better than Single-Joint?

A person doing a multi-joint exercise in the gym

No, multi-joint exercises aren’t better than single-joint exercises. Multi- and single-joint exercises are equally effective for promoting muscle hypertrophy. However, I recommend considering a few factors during exercise selection.

Why You Should Add Multi-Joint Exercises

Multi-joint exercises not only significantly boost your maximal strength, but they can also enhance muscle activation and increase metabolic stress, leading to improved overall fitness.

Plus, according to the National Institute of Health (NIH), they effectively recreate daily activities and sport-specific motions for a well-rounded training protocol session [1].

Multi-joint movements allow you to train with heavier weights than single-joint exercises, resulting in more significant strength gains.

You can train your whole body with only three to five multi-joint exercises.

You’d need to use a lot more exercises to train all your muscles if you relied solely on single-joint exercises.

Previous research by the NIH confirmed that practitioners incorporating multi-joint exercises into their training regimens could significantly boost their athletic performance, specifically in sports that involve dynamic movement across numerous joints [2].

Why You Should Choose Single-Joint exercises

A person doing single-joint exercise

Single-joint exercises are more convenient for targeting specific muscles and addressing muscular imbalances between muscle groups than multi-joint exercises.

Because multi-joint exercises allow lifters to use heavier weights and require more balance and coordination, they could be riskier than single-joint exercises.

What’s more, single-joint exercises have been suggested as beneficial due to reduced technical and coordination demands.

What Are the Benefits of Multi-Joint Exercises?

A person doing deadlifts in the gym

As a personal trainer, I've seen firsthand the benefits of multi-joint exercises. They not only enhance strength, muscle growth, and fat loss but also improve flexibility and cardiovascular health, leading to overall physical well-being improvement.

Known as compound exercises, these multi-joint movements in resistance training effectively involve multiple joints, allowing my clients to build total-body strength more efficiently.

Exercises, especially using heavy weights, trigger a more significant release of testosterone and growth hormone, both of which boost muscle protein synthesis.

Workouts that involve more muscle tissue can potentially result in greater calorie and fat burn since multi-joint exercises recruit so many muscles and are more energetically demanding.

“The biggest benefit of compound exercises may be that they are an efficient use of your time. If you only have a limited amount of time to exercise, you’ll work more muscles and build more strength by focusing on compound exercises.”

- Jane Chertoff, Fitness Editor at Healthline.com

What Are the Benefits of Single-Joint Exercises?

A person doing bicep curls in the gym

The benefits of adding only single joint exercises are reduced muscular asymmetries and risk of injury, as well as boosted muscle growth, strength, and overall body composition.

Adding single-joint exercises can boost your muscle strength even when they don't simultaneously work for numerous muscle groups at the same time.

Research by the NIH revealed that single and multi-joint exercises could equally promote upper-body muscle strength in untrained men [3].

Single-joint exercises can be highly effective at targeting specific muscles for growth and helping lagging muscles grow, as they allow you to activate them and give them more attention directly.

It is commonly used in rehab centers and physical therapy clinics.

Though it is more advisable to use multi-joint exercises for weight loss, MJ movements can help you burn fat.

What Are the Drawbacks of Multi-Joint Movements?

A person being helped with joint problems in the gym

The drawbacks of multi-joint movements are increased risk of injury and can aggravate pre-existing injuries.

In my experience as a trainer, I've noticed that exercises involving multiple joints can often lead to improper form and technique.

This increases the risk of straining tendons, ligaments, and muscles. Additionally, beginners might find the complexity of these movements intimidating, making it harder for them to perform these exercises correctly and safely.

Focusing solely on multi-joint movements could lead to neglecting isolated muscle training, essential for targeting individual muscle weaknesses and imbalances.

What Are the Drawbacks of Single-Joint Movements?

The drawbacks of single-joint exercises are muscle imbalances since the muscle group you're working on typically works alone without the support of synergistic muscle groups.

Additionally, single-joint exercises burn off a relatively low amount of calories compared to multi-joint exercises and don’t help raise your resting metabolic rate (RMR).

“A drawback of isolation exercises is that they can also cause muscle imbalances. If one muscle group is well-developed but the opposite does not quite match its strength, the body is out of alignment.”

- Paul Rogers, Editor at Verywellfit

Should You Do Multi or Single-Joint Exercises?

A coach helping a person in the gym workout

It is recommended in a study from ResearchGate to prioritize MJ movements because they appear to increase strength more than performing SJ exercises first [4].

Similarly, a study by NIH that compared SJ and MJ exercises at equal total load volume revealed if one wants to improve general fitness, performing a multi joint resistance exercises program made up of MJ exercises appears to provide superior adaptations compared to SJ exercises alone [5].

Drawing from our experience, including single and multi-joint exercises is the best way to enhance your training programs and produce even better results.

How to Do Compound Exercises?

A buff male doing deadlifts

I often recommend various compound back exercises to my clients. The most common and effective ones I incorporate into their routines include squats, deadlifts, lunges, and pull-ups.

1. Deadlifts

You can safely strengthen your entire posterior, including your glutes, forearms, hamstrings, back, and core with proper form and technique.

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointing straight ahead or angled slightly outward.
  2. Approach the barbell, allowing your shins to touch it gently.
  3. As you bend down to grab the bar, hinge from your hips, bend your knees slightly and maintain a neutral spine.
  4. Inhale deeply to brace your core, then engage your lats and push the floor away from you, driving your hips forward as you lift the bar.
  5. Stand tall with your shoulders back and chest out, and then smoothly descend the bar back to the ground through the reverse motion.

2. Squats

A woman doing squats in the gym

Squats are an excellent exercise to target your posterior chain, quads, and core stabilizers.

To perform a squat: 

  1. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  2. As you bend your knees, keep them in line with your feet.
  3. Slowly lower yourself until the tops of your thighs parallel the ground before returning to the starting position.
  4. Repeat until you reach the desired number of reps.

3. Lunges

Lunges are a remarkably effective, yet deceptively simple, compound exercise that can help strengthen and tone your thighs, glutes, and calves.

To perform a lunge correctly:

  1. Start by standing tall and maintaining a slightly natural curve to your back, with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Take an intentional step forward with your right foot ensuring it's a comfortable distance to enable balance and stability.
  3. As you plant that foot firmly on the ground, allow your left knee to bend towards the floor, stopping just before it touches down.
  4. Throughout this motion, keep your toes straight ahead and be mindful of proper alignment to avoid straining your back or knees. Inhale as you engage your leg muscles and push back up to your starting position.
  5. Alternate legs and keep your movements smooth and controlled for the desired number of repetitions.

4. Pull Ups

A person doing pull ups outside

Mastering this exercise requires physical power, mental determination, and proper technique.

To perform a pull up: 

  1. Start by finding a sturdy bar that can sufficiently support your body weight.
  2. With palms facing away from you, grip the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, and then hang with your arms extended and legs slightly bent.
  3. Engage your core, shoulders, and upper back by taking a deep breath and pulling your shoulder blades back and down while keeping your chest lifted.
  4. From this position, drive your elbows towards the floor, lifting your body upward, until your chin clears the bar.
  5. Pause for a moment at the top before lowering your body in a controlled manner back to the starting position.

5. Push Ups

Push-ups can engage the triceps, pectoral muscles, and shoulders.

To perform this resistance exercises resistance:

  1. Start by getting into a plank position with your body aligned from head to toe, hands shoulder-width apart, and palms flat on the floor.
  2. Slowly lower yourself by bending your elbows, ensuring they don't flare out to the sides, with your chest approaching the ground. Be mindful of maintaining a straight back and keeping your core engaged throughout the movement.
  3. Use your arms to push back up into the starting position once your chest is just above the floor.

How to Do Isolation Exercises?

A buff male doing bicep curls with a barbell

1. Bicep Curls

This versatile movement can be easily performed with a variety of equipment such as resistance bands, dumbbells, barbells, or cables.

To safely and effectively execute a bicep curl: 

  1. Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart while securely holding the weights or resistance band with palms facing forward.
  2. Gradually bend your elbows, bringing the weights or band towards your chest, while keeping your upper arms steady and your shoulders relaxed.
  3. Focus on contracting your biceps and exhale as you lift the weights. Then, lower the weights back to the starting position in a controlled manner, as you inhale.
  4. Repeat this movement for your desired number of repetitions and sets.

2. Calf Raises

A person doing calf raises in the gym

Calf raises are a fantastic way to strengthen the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles.

To perform a calf raise: 

  1. Start by standing tall with your feet hip-width apart and place your hands on your hips for balance.
  2. Slowly lift your heels off the ground, pressing down through the balls of your feet as you contract your calf muscles.
  3. Try reaching the highest point possible while maintaining your balance, then gently lower your heels back to the ground.
  4. Repeat until you reach your desired amount of reps.

3. Hamstring Curls

Hamstring curls represent an excellent way to focus on strengthening the muscles at the back of your thighs.

To incorporate this exercise into your training sessions:

  1. Begin by lying facedown on a fitness mat or a stable, cushioned surface.
  2. Secure your ankles firmly beneath the pad of the hamstring curl machine or use ankle weights to provide resistance.
  3. Keeping your torso flat on the ground, bend your knees towards your gluteals, allowing the movement to come solely from your hamstrings.
  4. Release your legs back to their starting position and repeat.

4. Leg Extensions

A woman in the gym doing leg extensions

Leg extensions are an excellent way to strengthen your quad muscles.

To properly execute them:

  1. Begin seated with your back against the seat and feet placed on the foot plate. Some machines have a lever to raise and lower the foot plate easily.
  2. Hold onto either side of the seat for support and slowly extend your legs outwards until your lower legs are perpendicular to your thighs and pause momentarily before bringing them back in line with your upper legs.
  3. Perform until you reach the desired amount of reps. Be sure not to lock out your knees at the top of the range of motion as this can be damaging to the joint.

“Choose a rep range and weight to suit your abilities. As a general rule of thumb, for hypertrophy (building muscle) for the leg extension, the higher end of 4 sets of 12-15 reps should be sufficient for a good leg pump.”

- Kate Neudecker, Fitness Editor at Menshealth.com

5. Pec Deck Machine

The pec deck machine exercise offers an efficient and powerful workout to help sculpt your chest muscles.

To execute this exercise effectively:

  1. Select an appropriate weight and adjust the seat height so that the machine's arms are at chest level.
  2. As you take a seat on the machine, firmly grip the handles and plant your feet on the ground for stability.
  3. Inhale as you engage your pectorals and bring the handles together in a controlled, fluid motion until they touch or nearly touch.
  4. Keep your elbows slightly bent to avoid strain on your joints, and maintain a full range of motion throughout the exercise.
  5. Once you've reached the movement's peak, exhale and slowly return to the starting position.

What Are the Single-Joint Exercises Mistakes to Avoid?

A stack of weights in the gym on the floor

The single-joint exercises mistakes to avoid are using excessive weight and the wrong technique.

One key mistake is using excessive weight, which may lead to improper form and increase the risk of injury.

Another frequent misstep is neglecting a balanced exercise routine, focusing only on specific muscles while ignoring others.

This can cause muscle imbalances that increase the likelihood of injury and limit overall progress.

It's also important to avoid rushing through single-joint exercises by performing repetitions too quickly.

What Are the Multi-Joint Exercises Mistakes to Avoid?

First, prioritize proper form over lifting heavier weights; this will help to prevent injury and ensure all muscles are being effectively engaged.

Another mistake is neglecting proper warm-up and stretching routines, leading to restricted mobility, reduced performance, and an elevated risk of injury.

Additionally, maintain balance in your workouts and do not overly rely on a few compound exercises. Incorporate a variety of movements to ensure that all muscle groups receive equal attention and help avoid muscle imbalances or overtraining.

Check out our listed worst exercises so you can avoid them.

Integration with Other Training Modalities

Integrating single and multi-joint exercises with other training modalities like plyometrics, balance training, and yoga can create a holistic fitness approach that addresses strength, flexibility, balance, and explosive power. Here's how they can be effectively combined:

  1. Combining with plyometrics: Plyometric exercises, known for developing explosive power, can be effectively paired with multi-joint movements like squats and lunges. For instance, after performing a set of squats, one could immediately transition into squat jumps. This combination enhances muscle activation and improves power output, beneficial for athletes in sports requiring explosive movements.
  2. Integration with balance training: Balance training, crucial for stability and injury prevention, can be complemented by single-joint exercises. Exercises like single-leg deadlifts or single-arm shoulder presses challenge balance while targeting specific muscle groups. Incorporating balance boards or stability balls during these exercises further enhances core engagement and stability.
  3. Synergy with yoga: Yoga, focusing on flexibility and mind-body connection, can be a great cool-down routine after a session of single and multi-joint exercises. Yoga poses like Downward Dog or Warrior series can help in stretching and lengthening the muscles worked during strength training. This integration aids in recovery, reduces muscle soreness, and improves overall flexibility.

FAQs

What Are Multi-Joint Exercises?

Multi-joint exercises are movements that involve more than one joint and work more muscles together. Examples of multi-joint exercises include deadlifts, squats, and bench presses.

What Are Single-Joint Exercises?

Single-joint exercises are movements that involve one specific muscle group. These workouts can result in large muscle development by placing attention on one specific body area.

What Are Examples of Single-Joint Exercises?

Examples of single-joint exercises are seated cable chest flys, pec deck machine, hamstring curls, leg extensions, lying triceps extensions, cable pushdown.


References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7745915/
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32469946/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4592763/
  4. www.researchgate.net/publication/339794093
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5744434/
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About The Author

Senior Coach
Connor Sellers holds a degree in Kinesiology and Exercise Science from Rutgers University He is an author and personal trainer with the mission to inspire people to relentlessly pursue their fitness and lifestyle goals. He mantra is that staying fit has an overall positive effect on one’s body, mind, and spirit.
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Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC is an ex-National Soccer player turned MMA and Kickboxing champion, with ACE CPT and PN1-NC certifications. His advice is rooted in education and experience, ensuring that readers receive scientific and battle-tested insights. His mission is to empower his clients and readers to realize their potential and become the best versions of themselves.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Kristy June Dayanan, BS, MD is an author with a BS degree from University of the Philippines and an MD from University of Perpetual Help System. Her ability to simplify medical science complexities and dietary supplement jargon for the average reader makes her a valued medical fact checker and reviewer.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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